By Worcester District 4 City Councilor Barbara Halller
In the interest of full disclosure, I once raised chickens. In one case it was while living at a farm-school in Pettigrew, Arkansas, and in the other it was while raising my family in the town of Holland, MA. I love chickens. My kids love chickens. And I can’t wait to raise chickens once again.
Right now it is against the law to have chickens in Worcester. This means that if you go ahead and raise some and someone complains you will be ordered to get rid of them. It also means that if some city person comes to your home or a nearby neighbor for some other reason (noisy party, barking dog, wellness check, etc.) and the chickens are seen that you will be ordered to get rid of them.
The idea of making chickens legal in Worcester has been around for a long time. But nobody got serious about it till a couple of years ago. Kristi Chadwick contacted me and asked for me to help get an ordinance effort going. We now call her the Mother Hen. Kristi did mounds of research about other communities’ ordinance successes and failures. She crafted a draft ordinance, and revised it, and revised it, over and over, as we worked to come up with the best chicken ordinance ever. We wanted a Responsible Chicken Ordinance, one that could get enacted and that protected quality of life for chickens and neighbors.
For many of us, this is not about if we get a chicken ordinance, but rather when we get one. This is happening across the country as more citizens want to participate in growing and controlling their own food, increase quality of their food, reduce transportation pollutions, and educate their children about where food comes from. On top of this, many find this kind of grassroots agriculture as fun and healthy.
Los Angeles, Rogers AK, Key West, South Portland ME, Madison, New York City, Portland OR, Seattle and Spokane WA, San Antonio, Oakland and San Diego and San Francisco CA, Austin, Memphis, Baltimore, and many, many more towns and cities now allow chickens. Providence passed her ordinance last fall.
Along the way, word got out about this effort and others joined in. My Clark intern in 2010, Lilly Denhardt, did some research. Mayor Joe O’Brien joined. Regional Environmental Council (REC) joined. Casey Starr joined. Joe Scully joined. Liz Sheehan Castro joined. Peggy Middaugh joined. By this spring, the effort definitely had momentum and it was time to move it into the Council process.
A group of us met with the Commissioner of Public Health, Dr. Dale Magee, and the Director of Public Health, Derek Brindisi, and went over the proposed ordinance, section by section, and listened to concerns raised. More revisions were made; the text was put in cleaner ordinance format.
Our ordinance allows for up to 5 chicken hens. No roosters, no slaughtering, no selling. Property owner’s permission is required. Backyards only. Annual license. City-approved coop. Outside only. At least twenty feet from neighbor’s house. Fenced enclosure.
Word continued to spread. More people joined in support. On June 14, 2011 Mayor O’Brien and I filed a council order requesting that the City Manager provide council with language similar to our draft ordinance which would allow for the keeping of chicken hens in Worcester. The request was sent to the Council’s Standing Committee of Public Health and Human Services for further discussion and recommendation. Councilor Phil Palmieri chairs this committee; the other two members are Councilor Konnie Lukes and myself.
The process is likely to be as follows: Councilor Palmieri schedules a hearing. Testimony is taken from the public, from city officials from Animal Control, Public Health, Planning Department (land use), and the Law Department. There may be more committee hearings scheduled, depending on the issues raised. At some point the committee will make a recommendation back to the full council: in favor, opposed, or in favor as amended by committee. Then the council will take a vote to support the committee’s recommendations or not. Six votes are needed. Members of the council could raise additional questions, could hold it for a week or forever. If we get the votes we need, the ordinance would be published for additional comments and then the final vote taken.
So, we have a way to go yet. But with strong advocacy and engagement we could have spring chicks 2012. (Rule is: Spring chicks, September eggs.) Hopefully we will soon answer the question “which came first.” For Worcester, many of us want the answer to be “the chicken.”
I believe that we have crafted a responsible and workable ordinance that will make Worcester a better place.